December 13 2008
Dead but not forgotten, the lanky, chain-smoking shadow of "Gonzo"
journalist and frantic libertarian Hunter S Thompson still looms
large in the film and literary world some three years after his
demise. Two biographies were published last year, and an intimate
memoir by close friend Jay Cowan will be released in 2009 along with
the third hefty volume of Thompson's letters.
In cinema, shooting is apparently about to begin on a film version of
Thompson's Puerto Rican travelogue, The Rum Diary, with his old buddy
Johnny Depp set to star. And meanwhile, a documentary on the man's
life and times will be released here next Friday.
The rather grandly titled Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S
Thompson is directed by Alex Gibney and takes an in-depth look at the
celebrated work and even more celebrated lifestyle of the late
lamented satirist. Inevitably, Johnny Depp is once again involved,
reading reverentially from Thompson's work, and plenty of other
friends and admirers line up to share their memories.
Gibney's film is sparing on the grandiose drink and drug-fuelled
exploits with which the writer is most famously associated, however,
and spends most of its time trying to justify his enormous fame in
terms of his writing, particularly his early journalism for Rolling
Stone magazine and others.
Whether or not it succeeds in this no doubt noble endeavour is,
however, very much a moot point and what emerges from Gibney's film
is a rather depressing portrait of a man who failed to fulfil his
considerable writing talent and was ultimately consumed by a cartoon
Hunter Thompson of his own making. Because although he ended up a
drug-addled spouter of catchy, vapid slogans, Thompson started out as
an ambitious writer with serious literary aspirations.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Hunter Stockton Thompson had a problem
with authority from the word go. Frequently in trouble at school, he
missed his high school graduation ceremony because he was doing 30
days in Jefferson County Jail for his peripheral involvement in a robbery.
His teachers may not have spotted his talent, but Hunter dreamt of
becoming a literary lion, and copied out The Great Gatsby and A
Farewell to Arms on his typewriter in order to educate himself about
style. By the age of 22, he'd written two novels and numerous short
stories which no one seemed interested in publishing.
In desperation, he turned to journalism, and spent most of the early
1960s in South America working as a correspondent for a newspaper
called the National Observer. His early reporting, however, was quite
conventional, and it was only when he moved to San Francisco in 1965
and began immersing himself in the city's burgeoning drug and hippie
culture that his distinctive mix of fact, fantasy and vicious satire
His big break as a writer came in May of that year when The Nation
commissioned him to write a feature about the original Hell's Angels
motorcycle gang. He spent the next year embedded with the bikers and
writing Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw
The book got him noticed, and by the late 1960s he was earning big
money writing contentious pieces for The New York Times, Esquire and
-- most importantly -- Rolling Stone.
He used his earnings to buy a house in Woody Creek, just outside the
exclusive resort of Aspen, in Colorado where -- to the horror of some
locals -- he was free to indulge his love of hard drugs, alcohol and guns.
Ever the subversive, Hunter launched an unlikely campaign to become
sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970, running on a pro-drug,
pro-gun, "Freak Power" ticket. He shaved his head so he could refer
to the crewcut incumbent as "my long-haired opponent". And he almost won, too.
But behind the jokes was a genuine belief in a libertarian, anti-big
government America. Thompson was a secret idealist, but when Bobby
Kennedy was shot in 1968, he began to become disillusioned.
"Gonzo journalism" was born during a memorable trip to the Kentucky
Derby with English illustrator Ralph Steadman in 1970. A brilliant
piece ensued which completely ignored the horses and scabrously
described the grotesque socialites who were watching them. His
thrusting, drug and alcohol-fuelled prose reached its zenith in 1972,
with the publication of the groundbreaking Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas, an addled search for America's soul. That same year he
provided a series of searing and very funny reports for Rolling Stone
on the presidential campaign.
All of this made him a sort of literary superstar. On the campaign
trail with George McGovern, Hunter noticed that he was having to sign
more autographs than the candidate. His growing fame and his
caricature of himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas froze him in
the public mind as a cackling, heavily armed, counterculture savant
on a permanent bender and he seemed only too happy to live up to the
image. Which would have been fine if he'd kept producing quality
prose, but as his fame grew the writer's flame diminished.
At its best, Thompson's journalism was nothing short of brilliant,
his wild skits and snide asides concealing a razor-sharp insight and
serious analytical mind. But what we got in the last 30-odd years of
his life was very rarely vintage Hunter. He remained very funny and
extremely quotable. The music business was "a cruel and shallow money
trench ... where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like
dogs. There (was) also a negative side."
And America was memorably summed up as "a nation of 200 million used
car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms
about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us feel
But behind the "Gonzo" façade was a man devastated by his failure to
become a great novelist. On the afternoon of February 20, 2005, he
closed the door of his study in Woody Creek and shot himself. Johnny
Depp paid for his glitzy funeral, which involved his ashes being shot
from a cannon. Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray and Sean Penn attended,
but all the Hollywood glitz in the world couldn't conceal the fact
that here was a talent that had been largely squandered.
'Gonzo' opens at selected cinemas next Friday.